Carol A. Hand
Years ago, I was advised to submit one of my university exam papers for publication even though it was too long to be accepted as a journal article, and too short to be a book (Hand, 1999). I decided to share it here, with minor edits and illustrations added, in hopes that it might be of interest and stimulate thoughtful dialogue.
INTRODUCTION: THEORETICAL OVERVIEW
Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. (Please refer to Endnote 1 for more information about the request to include this work in my writing.) In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.
WHAT [MY COMMUNITY] WOULD BE LIKE WITH NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS
[My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.
This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy. (Please refer to Endnote 2 for information about terminology related to Indigenous Peoples.)
Photo: Wounded Knee Massacre – 1891
BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE
The Significance of Theory in Defining Child Treatment
Definition. “Theory” is defined as “a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena … [or as] a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact” (Webster’s Dictionary, 1989, p. 1471, emphasis added). Theories are attempts to understand the world in order to predict behavior. Social work, ideally, is founded on a theoretical knowledge base: “to explain why people behave as they do, to better understand how the environment affects behavior, to guide interventive behavior, and to predict what is likely to be the result of a particular social work intervention (Green & Ephross, 1991, p. 5, as cited in Miley, O’Melia, and DuBois, 1995, p. 27). Yet, as helpful as theories can be, they are culture-bound and historically-variable (Kuhn, 1970).
Paradigms and Practice. While the definition of theory cited above suggests that “well-established propositions” are distinct from a theory, theories are often viewed as more than “conjectural.” Theories emerge from the work of researchers and scholars within specific cultures and times (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). Thomas Kuhn (1970, p. viii) points out in his notable work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that scientists within given fields gradually develop a degree of consensus about “the nature of legitimate scientific problems and methods.” Kuhn (1970, p. viii) refers to the “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” as “paradigms.”
According to Kuhn (1970, p. 5), paradigms “… are firmly embedded in the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice … [and] come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind” as a result of rigid and rigorous professional education. He (Kuhn, 1970, p. 5) argues that natural science “… is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community’s willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost… [and a given community] often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” The human sciences constantly try to copy natural sciences in this regard, by ignoring the “background techniques, shared discriminations, and a shared sense of relevance — all those skills picked up through training which form a part of what Kuhn calls the ‘disciplinary matrix’ of a science” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983, p. 163).
Thus, theories are embedded within particular paradigms that: (1) define the problems which are legitimate for research, (2) the methods for approaching further research, and (3) the answers which are acceptable, expected, or “normal” (Kuhn, 1970; Foucault, 1979; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). Theories about children and families based on a particular set of beliefs and values form the texts and knowledge bases that are built into social work education and into the public consciousness, and hence, define expectations, laws, and policies. The causality of child maltreatment, and the particular interventive approaches used, are based on accepted theories which are culture-bound. Standards of normalcy, in this case child (mal)treatment, reflect theories developed by those with the power and prestige to be heard (Foucault, 1979; Kritzman, 1988; Nelson, 1984; Costin et al., 1996). The interventions which follow from theories, likewise, are defined by the beliefs of the powerful. As Michel Foucault (1979) notes: “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements” (p. 304).
Photo: Carlisle Indian Boarding School (1879-1918)
The judges of normalcy use culture-bound paradigms and theories to understand and label the behavior of others (Foucault, 1979). This power to label others as abnormal, deviant, or deficient remains largely invisible and has rarely been subjected to scientific scrutiny (Gordon, 1980). Even more hidden are the mechanisms which socialize individuals to use the very same theories to judge themselves, their families, and their communities (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983; Foucault, 1979). The purpose of this paper is to explore theories that attempt, at least in part, to explain the mechanisms of power which have continued to influence the experiences and circumstances of Native American children, families, and communities. Change, including the legitimization of a more pluralistic paradigm, is made more difficult without understanding the forces which support the continuation of cultural hegemony.
The following macro-theoretical perspectives attempt to explain the interconnectedness of social systems and the mechanisms of differential power. According to Zald (1981, p. 238), “Power is the ability of a person or group, for whatever reason, to affect another person’s or group’s ability to achieve its goals (personal or collective).” However, understanding the impact of unequal power relations presents a conundrum. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992, p. 533) points out:
In writing against cultures and institutions of fear and domination, the critical thinker falls into a classic double bind. Either one attributes great explanatory power to the fact of oppression (but in so doing one can reduce the subjectivity and agency of subjects to a discourse on victimization) or one can try to locate the everyday forms of resistance in the mundane tactics and practices of the oppressed, the weapons of the weak… Here one runs the risk of romanticizing human suffering or trivializing its effects on the human spirit, consciousness, and will.
Clearly, the ability of Native American peoples to raise successive generations according to their own values has been impacted by their relatively powerless position in relation to the colonial dominance of the “Anglo-centric” values of the United States (Adams, 1995; Cornell, 1988; Fleras & Elliott, 1992). Despite the centuries of oppression and relentless brutality to which Native American peoples have been subjected, however, the survival of tribal communities represents an astounding degree of cultural and individual resilience and adaptability (Snipp, 1989; Cornell, 1988). Yet, as many scholars point out, the survival of Native American peoples has not come without heavy costs for children, families, and communities (Snipp, 1989; Cornell, 1988; Fleras & Elliott, 1992). In an attempt to chart a middle ground, to avoid presenting Native American peoples today as purely hapless victims of a continuing legacy of oppression or as quintessential romantic rebels, the theoretical discussion which follows begins with general macro-theoretical frameworks and moves to more specific perspectives.
“The Ecology of Human Development.” The elegance of Uri Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) approach to human development rests in both its multidimensional complexity and its emphasis on the transactional and reciprocal nature of relations between people and their changing environments. As illustrated in figure 1 below, which somewhat oversimplifies Bronfenbrenner’s model, individuals are “nested” concentrically within a series of environmental relationships.
Figure 1: The Ecology of Human Development
The “microsystem” includes those immediate aspects of the environment “that are most powerful in shaping the course of psychological growth”: “a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22). For infants, the primary microsystem is usually their home setting with primary caregivers, simple activities, and a limited set of roles. Development through childhood and beyond involves an increase in the number and complexity of roles, relations, and activities, as well as the addition of new microsystems, such as daycare, preschool, school, etc., in which a developing person is embedded. As individuals move into additional settings, linkages are created between microsystems, resulting in what Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 25) refers to as “mesosystems,” or “a system of microsystems.”
While the developing individuals directly participate in both microsystems and mesosystems through their relationships with parents, teachers, and other significant persons, their development is indirectly influenced by systems outside their own experience. Parents, teachers, and other relatives are all embedded in a series of settings (for example, parents’ work, parents’ networks of friends, teachers’ unions, local school boards, etc.) that influence how they relate to the developing individuals. This indirect, external set of influences is labeled the “exosystem” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 25). All of these systems are embedded within the “macrosystem”, defined as “consistencies, in the form and content of lower-order systems (micro-, meso-, and exo-) that exist, or could exist, at the level of the subculture or the culture as a whole, along with any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies” (p. 26). Macrosystems are the blueprint, or the overarching cultural paradigm (Fleras & Elliott, 1992), which determines the content, structure, and goals of the lower level systems in which individuals are embedded. Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 26) notes that the macrosystems which exert influences on developing individuals “differ for various socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and other subgroups, reflecting contrasting belief systems and lifestyles, which in turn help to perpetuate the ecological environments specific to each group.” Individuals not only sustain the blueprint, or ‘macrosystem’ in which they are embedded, but are also capable of modifying its content and structure.
Bronfenbrenner does not speak to the relations among macrosystems, nor does he note power differentials between competing “blueprints” which exist among different social classes or ethnic groups within or among nations. Power, in his conception, is located within a macrosystem and manifested in “roles” or “power settings.” At the level of roles, he hypothesizes that: “The greater the degree of power socially sanctioned for a given role, the greater the tendency for the role occupant to exercise and exploit the power and for those in a subordinate position to respond by increased submission, dependency, and lack of initiative” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 92).
As support for this hypothesis, Bronfenbrenner cites two classic studies of power: Stanley Milgram’s investigation of obedience to authority, and the simulated prison experiment conducted at Stanford University by Zimbardo and his colleagues. In an experiment where subjects were asked to administer increasing levels of electrical shock to other individuals, Milgram found a surprising degree of compliance with authority. When commanded by the experimenter to administer painful and harmful levels of shock, most subjects complied despite cries of pain from the victims. Zimbardo and his colleagues simulated a prison experiment by randomly assigning 24 psychologically “stable” male college students to play either the role of prison guard or the role of prisoner. “As the experiment continued, the guards intensified their harassment and aggressive behavior, whereas the prisoners exhibited marked shifts in emotional state. On the second day, they [the prisoners] broke out in violence and rebellion, but once the guards used force to quell the uprising (by employing fire extinguishers as weapons and transforming prisoners’ rights into ‘privileges’), there followed a period of profound passivity, depression, and self-deprecation” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 89). The divergent reactions were not attributed to differences in individual dispositions, but rather to “patterns of response specific to particular roles and institutions in American society” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 90).
“Power settings,” according to Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 255), “can be either formal (such as a board meeting) or informal (such as a cocktail party or a golf game). They can occur at the local or national level, either in the public (as in government) or the private sector (as in big business). The active participants in these settings … [are] the persons who allocate the resources and make the decisions, … ‘the power elite’…” Direct links to power settings differ by social position within the prevailing macrosystem, and have both direct and indirect effects on the developmental trajectories of individuals.
While Bronfenbrenner notes the “agency” of individuals with respect to their environments, their ability to not merely adapt to but to also transform the forces surrounding them, the mechanisms by which patterns are perpetuated or modified remain unspecified. Conceptualized as a “system,” the nested levels are interdependent. Bronfenbrenner notes that a change at one level results in a ripple effect, and although implicit, changes at each higher level have the potential to exert changes of greater magnitude and duration. Similarly unspecified are the reasons why some macrosystems dominate others, the mechanisms by which one macrosystem assumes and maintains dominance over others, and the impact on individuals within subordinate systems. For those communities and individuals in “powerless” roles, and for those who have no direct access to power settings, the context of development is defined by a macrosystem that often embodies a different set of values, roles, and activities than those of their own, less powerful, macrosystem. For Native American tribes, families, and children, this has meant continuing subjugation to normalizing judgments based on standards (e.g., appropriate child treatment) that are often antithetical to those embodied in their own cultural macrosystems (Fleras & Elliott, 1992). A number of theoretical perspectives offer plausible explanations for why some groups attain dominance over others, how dominance is maintained despite resistance, and what impact unequal power relationships have had on Native American peoples.
Photo: Carlisle Indian School Band
Why Dominant/Subordinate Macrosystems Emerge. Many scholars have attempted to explain the Eurocentric domination of indigenous peoples in the Americas (e.g., Dippie, 1982; Cornell, 1988; Berkhofer, 1979; Fleras & Elliott, 1992) and around the world (e.g., Weatherford, 1988; Sahlins, 1994; Armitage, 1995). At the very foundation of domination, many scholars have pointed to the Eurocentric (often Anglo-centric) belief of invaders and colonizers that domination of indigenous peoples was justified on the basis of the technological, social, and moral superiority of European cultures (or paradigms and macrosystems). The strength of this unquestioned belief set in motion a legacy of domination which remains largely unquestioned today, and still results in an Aglo-centric judgment of indigenous macrosystems and peoples as inferior (Fleras & Elliott, 1992; Cornell, 1988). It is crucial to remove the discourse on cultural differences from the realm of unproductive rhetorical comparisons based on simplistic, value-laden dichotomies of civilized/savage, progressive/primitive, christian/heathen (i.e., superior/inferior). “[W]ords such as ‘civilization,’ and phrases such as ‘rise of civilization,’ convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness” (Diamond, 1997, p. 18).
Applying Bronfenbrenner’s macrosystem in the broadest possible way to interpret the scholarship of Jared Diamond (1997) does move cultural discourse to a more productive level. Diamond compellingly demonstrates the extent to which environment, in its most basic physical sense, rather than biological differences in peoples, is indeed a crucial factor in human development. Different developmental trajectories traced across human history link continental differences to four crucial factors: (1) the availability of a balanced set (or “suite”) of domesticable plants enabling agriculture; (2) the availability of domesticable large mammals for food, transportation, and heavy labor; (3) the shape and size of continental land masses (east-west versus north-south axes), and; (4) the date of initial human habitation.
Eurasia, unlike other continental land masses (Africa, the Americas, and Australia), was triply blessed with a wide range of domesticable plants, large domesticable mammals, and an east-west orientation enabling the diffusion of domesticates (and other innovations) across the same climates. Eurasia was also one of the sites of earliest human habitation. These environmental factors enabled an earlier development and diffusion of agriculture and sedentary societies. Diamond (1997) notes that “… plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies” (p. 92). As a result of close association and long exposure to domesticated animals and the diseases carried by pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep, Eurasians were able to develop resistance and immunities to the major killers of past centuries: smallpox, influenza, plague, measles, and cholera.
The political structures which gradually developed to manage larger, more densely settled populations in Eurasia and elsewhere around the globe, are characterized by a shift from “egalitarianism to kleptocracy” (Diamond, 1997, p. 265). Central governments become essential with increased population size in order to reduce violence among unrelated strangers. The ties of relationship in smaller tribal communities which mediate conflict and violence do not suffice as population size increases to more than a few hundred members. Hence, with a surplus of food, division of labor allows (and necessitates) the creation of a centralized governing structure controlled by individuals who are freed from the necessity of producing their own food. Diamond (1995) observed that centralized governments offer both advantages and disadvantages for those who are governed by them. Among the greatest advantages of centralized government is its ability to provide “expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis. At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring new wealth from commoners to upper classes. These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize more of one fiction that the other. The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put” (Diamond, 1997, p. 276).
Diamond (1997) argues that the trend toward forming larger populations and governments spreads outward. Smaller, more egalitarian societies are either absorbed by larger states, or must organize with other peoples to successfully resist domination. Unlike the value-laden Darwinian interpretation of cultural progression from “primitive” to “civilized” societies popularized during the late 1800s by anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States (Berkhofer, 1979), Diamond’s (1997) perspective provides another interpretation. In order to increase the likelihood of survival as distinct groups, smaller “band” and “tribal’ societies adapted to their changing sociopolitical environment (encroaching “chiefdoms,” “states,” and “empires”) by forming larger, more complex centralized governmental structures (Diamond, 1997, p. 269). While centralized forms of government emerged in larger societies around the globe, it was European colonialism which established the particular political, social, and economic paradigms which were imposed over indigenous peoples in colonized continents worldwide. Among the advantages which made successful European conquest possible were “germs, technology, political organization, and writing” (Diamond, 1997, p. 357).
Of these advantages, the invention of writing is one of the “key hallmarks” of the transition from “savagery to civilization” (Diamond, 1997, p. 215). “[P]eoples who pride themselves on being civilized have always viewed writing as the sharpest distinction raising them above ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages.’ Knowledge brings power. Hence writing brings power to modern societies, by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy and in far greater quantity and detail, from more distant lands and more remote times” (p. 215). Yet, the development of writing occurred late in human history and only under specific circumstances in only two, three, or four sites in the world (Sumer and Mesoamerica, and possibly in China and Egypt). Only one of these sites, Sumer, developed the alphabet which served as a blueprint, or in rare cases spread by idea diffusion, for “[a]ll of the hundreds of historical and now existing alphabets…” (Diamond, 1997, p. 226). The same continental geographic and ecological barriers either aided or impeded the spread of this innovation.
Diamond (1997, p.236) observes that:
Early writing served the needs of those political institutions (such as record keeping and royal propaganda), and the users were full-time bureaucrats nourished by stored food surpluses grown by food-producing peasants. Writing was never developed or even adopted by hunter-gatherer societies, because they lacked both the institutional uses of early writing and the social and agricultural mechanisms for generating the food surpluses required to feed scribes. Thus, food production and thousands of years of societal evolution following its adoption were as essential for the evolution of writing as for the evolution of microbes causing human epidemic diseases.
Hence, the earlier development of writing, diseases, and technologies which enabled Europeans to establish dominance over peoples worldwide were made possible by a collection of environmental factors unique to Eurasia. In the process of conquest, Europeans were able to impose their cultural paradigms, or macrosystems, over other peoples (Diamond, 1997). The next question concerns how European macrosystems have been able to maintain dominance over those of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as elsewhere, despite resistance on the part of those indigenous peoples who were displaced and dispossessed. Although Diamond’s perspective helps move the discourse on cultures from the level of racist beliefs of superior/inferior peoples, and unresolvable polemics as to which cultures are “best,” the consequences and continuation of Eurocentric domination remain powerful forces in the lives of indigenous peoples.
To be continued…
1. The young man’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited.
2. The terms Native American, American Indian, and First Nations peoples are used interchangeably throughout. American Indian/Alaska Native (or simply ‘Indian,” as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs) is still the dominant term used for administrative purposes by the United States Government, as well as by many tribal elders. The term Native American emphasizes the indigenous status of the population which occupied the Americas at the time of European “discovery,” and served as a focus for unifying the descendants of indigenous peoples across tribal boundaries during the 1960s. First Nations peoples, a term widely used in what is now Canada, underscores the importance of sovereignty as an ideology which distinguishes tribal communities from other numeric “minorities” within societies dominated by the numerically larger Euro-American immigrant populations who have imposed political, cultural, and economic hegemony.
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